Anyone who has seen Cheryl Dunye's The Watermelon Woman might remember it as a charming, unusual film, a faux documentary set in Philadelphia from a Black filmmaker trying to research a forgotten figure of cinema history. It also plays a pivotal role in the history of Black lesbian filmmaking.
"It is the first time a Black lesbian is making a feature film, and the world of media-making shifts," independent filmmaker Yvonne Welbon told Windy City Times about the 1996 movie.
Over time, Welbon has created a database of around 150 films by Black lesbians, and she is the co-editor of the new essay collection Sisters in the Life, in which a collection of filmmakers, curators and scholars offer insight into what shaped the contributions of this particular demographic, and what stands out about the work Black lesbians have produced.
Welbon recalled much of the early work, including her own, being autobiographical. "I do think that comes from not having seen oneself in media, and this yearning to see oneself, using the self to tell the story," she explained.
The words of respected director Michelle Parkerson, in an essay first published in the Advocate in 1991, open the book. "She was the person that we heard about that existed when we all wanted to become filmmakers," Welbon said of Parkerson. "She had written this seminal piece when all of us were starting off in the '90s: what a great way to start the book, with her words, with her looking and yearning for our future. The book really speaks of this world that she's anticipating."
"I think the early '90s was a very interesting time. Now we have the 'diversity and inclusion moment,' but that was 'multicultural,'" Welbon recalled. "The gay and lesbian film circuit was really gearing up and just growing. The festivals wrote grants to make sure that they had queer people of color at their festivals, and so we would all end up in Los Angeles, or New York or San Francisco. There were these opportunities to keep coming together in spaces that weren't necessarily our home. We're together in these spaces where we're thinking about films, we're seeing each other's work, and we're sharing, and we're all in our 20s or something, so we're all kind of coming of age and growing up together. And that was so amazing and important. And also back then, because there were so few of us, the men and the women, we were together, we would help each other out. I don't see that happening as much right now."
The range of women and work Welbon and her co-editor, film professor Alex Juhasz, includes is fascinating and broad. Obvious standouts like Pariah Dee Rees, and Angela Robinson, the first Black lesbian to direct a major studio feature film, get their time, but so do local filmmaker Coquie Hughes, adult film director Shine Louise Houston, and multimedia artist Pamela Jennings, in addition to essays on curators and producers.
"I thought Pamela Jennings was interesting because when we're all starting off, she was just so out there," Welbon said. "She was like, 'Oh, there's this new software? I'm gonna use it in a project.' We're about the same age, but I'm in film school studying her because she was such an innovator. Even though she was sort of a peer, she also wasn't, and I just felt like that history would be lost if we didn't include her, and it might encourage other people who will read this book to you know think, 'maybe I should do something not along the beaten path.'"
Curator Shari Frilot, who founded Sundance's New Frontier initiative, was another somewhat unique inclusion. "There's a Black lesbian who is at the forefront of looking at new media," Welbon said. "There's filmmaking, but there are all these aspects around filmmaking that make our careers possible, and one of them is, the curator, the programmer at a film festival, and her journey. There are other ways one can be involved in filmmaking, and these other roles are really important to the overall world of Black lesbian media-making."
While the first half of the book showcases the range of the early pioneers, Black lesbian filmmakers found a different objective after The Watermelon Woman.
"We don't see as many experimentations or shorts or things of that nature that we explored in the first half of the book," explained Welbon. "And everyone becomes part of the industry of making feature films, that becomes the goal."
Although the shift toward feature-length creation is clear, beginning around 2008, several factors converged to make webseries another choice medium. In addition to production costs dropping overall and the birth of a now-ubiquitous platform, YouTube, internet service both expanded and gained speed, making uploading and downloading far more possible in more places.
"One of the things I note in the introduction to the second half of the book is the rise of the webseries," Welbon explained. "And those really came out of the South. That is an area that Hollywood's not necessarily looking to, there aren't necessarily film schools down there either. But those women took it into their own hands to tell their stories."
Welbon remembered teaching at a North Carolina college and one of her studentsa social work majortelling her she was going to start a webseries, which ended up being relatively successful.
"When you think about work made by directors, we often think about things that we can go to a movie theater to see, or is written about," she explained. "In this book, I focus on a lot of that, feature films that have penetrated and become part of popular culture as we understand it, they had theatrical runs, they were written about, the filmmakers are known among certain circles. But there's also this parallel world that is happening simultaneously, where you're having women who are not going to be part of that popular culture realm, and yet they're creating work that's serving the community, and probably in greater numbers."
Sisters in the Life concludes with a brief explanation of the work of the Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project (QWOCMAP). Its impact is obvious to Welbon, who said more than 100 additional films have been made as part of that project.
"One should think about QWOCMAP as a place where one can go to take their first film class," Welbon said.
Welbon said her research shows that gender, rather than race, is perhaps a bigger hurdle to filmmaking success, but Black lesbians are still striving to make their voices heard.
"Independent filmmakers are not trying to be independent," Welbon explained. "They really would like to have a lovely budget to make a film properly. You see that shift happening after The Watermelon Woman, when these filmmakers move to that ground, thinking, maybe I can be just like other filmmakers, maybe I can work under a Hollywood model or an industry model, maybe I can get funding to do my work properly. And that takes us to a place where we can become part of popular culture, and join what we understand to be the American movie canon. We understand ourselves a lot through popular culture, so it's really important that the Black lesbian voice is included in that."
Sisters in the Life: A History of Out African American Lesbian Media-making, edited by Yvonne Welbon and Alexandra Juhasz, Duke University Press, now available. See www.dukeupress.edu/sisters-in-the-life .